A conversation with …

Frank Pugh


alifornia Schools recently sat down with new National School Boards Association President and CSBA Past President Frank Pugh to hear more about his NSBA presidency and his storied career in public education.

As a Santa Rosa City Schools board member for the past 28 years, a member of the CSBA leadership team for more than 20 years, and a counselor and applied technology instructor at Santa Rosa Junior College, Frank Pugh is no stranger to public education advocacy.

Tell us a little bit about your background.

I was educated in public schools in Chula Vista, Calif. I put myself through college by working summers in a shipyard as an electrician’s assistant and got my degrees at San Diego State University in Industrial Studies. In 1978, Ann and I got married and we were both planning to begin our teaching careers in San Diego when Prop. 13 passed and changed the funding mechanism for schools. So, we left our hometown and both took jobs at Porterville Unified School District where Ann taught kindergarten and I taught industrial arts at Porterville High School. A year later, we relocated to Santa Rosa where I am in my 39th year at Santa Rosa Junior College. I have taught electronics and applied mathematics, and now I am a full-time academic advisor and counselor. My whole career has been under the shadow of Prop. 13 and the tremendous negative impact that it’s had on the ability for schools to get themselves fully and fairly funded.

Early on in my career at the college, I got involved with our faculty senate and served as their president for six years. During that time, I would negotiate salary enhancements, fringe benefits and so forth, and I got really interested in the whole governance process working with the college board and administration representing the faculty. Whether it’s on a board or committee or in an institution, it’s vitally important how you structure your conversations, and through that process you can create good governance that benefits everyone.

After my time serving as faculty president, a mid-cycle vacancy opened up on the school board for Santa Rosa City Schools, so I applied. It was a large pool of candidates, maybe 12 or so, and we were all interviewed. It got down to myself and another person, and unfortunately they selected the other guy. In the next election, I ran against that person and won. I’ve been on my board since 1990 and I am the longest serving board member in the history of our district.

It didn’t take me long to get introduced to CSBA through their trainings and I eventually became more and more involved. I served as president of CSBA in 2010. After that, I became a director for the Pacific Region, which is a territory established by the National School Boards Association. And now I am preparing to serve as NSBA’s president. One thing always leads to another in education, and that’s true with board governance as well.

And, one more thing about my background. Ann and I will be celebrating our 40th wedding anniversary this year. We have two daughters and two sons-in-law and two grandchildren and one more on the way. My family is changing — going from my kids growing up to now they are having their own children, so that’s really kind of exciting!

After so many years, what motivates you to continue your advocacy work?

Seeing progress. If you continue to identify what you’re trying to accomplish, you get a great sense of satisfaction seeing things come to fruition. For instance, a lot of construction has taken place in my school district since I’ve been on the board. We’ve passed a number of bonds, and we’ve done some tremendous buildings — we built two high schools and established a workplace elementary school (worksite school) for one of our local tech firms. We have several dependent charter schools, including a French-American charter school (French immersion school) and a charter arts school. You get a great sense of satisfaction seeing these physical changes because in education things change so slowly.

I truly continue to enjoy my work as a school board member. In spite of the chronic challenges and the ever-changing landscape of public education, I find it to be one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. You have to look at what we can do as board members to improve our communities with the resources that are given to us. It requires constant reinvention and constant review, and I like that part of governance. It’s very rewarding to create new programs out of virtually nothing and promote the talents that we have in our districts among our teachers and administrators to benefit our kids.

How do you plan to bring a “California perspective” to the national level in your role as NSBA President?

CSBA provides training and services to our membership so we can be on point, organized and useful in getting our message across to our constituents. And the National School Boards Association promotes the same goals and also includes state association leadership training. California has around six million students. Nationally, you’re talking about 51 million students. Another difference between the two associations is that California is much more diversified and progressive from what I’ve seen. You find that a lot of school districts in California celebrate diversity and perhaps I can share our experience here in a positive way for everyone. I feel that we are very much ahead of the game when it comes to equity in our classrooms, and given our funding formula [LCFF] we are seeing real improvements in student progress. NSBA is actively addressing this issue as well.

As president of the organization, I’ll be doing what all board members do with their boards — we listen carefully to other perspectives, we listen carefully to other states and their experiences, and we try to incorporate those best practices and productive ideas. We, as a national organization, provide legal resources for school districts, advocacy, and we do a lot of federal lobbying. Many states can’t really afford to adequately provide the kind of lobbying effort that NSBA can do for them. One of the amazing things about school boards is that nationally we are the largest body of elected officials in the nation. We have over 90,000 school board members which is, by any measure, an enormous population of like-minded people working for the benefit of kids.

I truly continue to enjoy my work as a school board member. In spite of the chronic challenges and the eve-changing landscape of public education, I find it to be one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. You have to look at what we can do as board members to improve our communities with the resources that are given to us. It requires constant reinvention and constant review, and I like that part of governance.

– Frank Pugh

Your community in Santa Rosa recently experienced devastating wildfires in October 2017. How is your community doing today?

Our community is struggling right now. What we’ve been through has been quite devastating. I think Santa Rosa lost over 5,000 homes. For Santa Rosa City Schools, we actually were fortunate to lose only one elementary school. We also lost the use of our farm and equipment, which included a vineyard.

I think we figured out that about 900 of our students were in the burn zone and therefore became homeless. Our enrollment thus far has dropped by about 300 full time equivalent, and so we’re seeing a migration away right now. It’s a strong financial challenge to our district, but we’re doing all we can. The fire, known as the Tubbs Fire, was one of the most destructive fires in California’s history — it was like nothing we’ve ever seen. Two of my board members lost their homes. A couple of them were evacuated out and a couple of us had our cars packed, backed up into the driveway, ready to go. They closed two of our three hospitals. It was really serious.

With the help of CSBA, we are working with our state legislators and the State Superintendent of Public Instruction on recovering funds, and we hope to see some progress made in that area. The fire had a huge emotional impact on our district. We have about 12 elementary schools, five middle schools, six high schools — all of which were closed for three weeks. They all needed to be cleaned and scrubbed safe. We replaced ventilation filters and checked and rechecked the air quality in the classrooms before reopening them. And, of course, we had teachers and staff who lost their homes. A lot of our students saw and experienced terror, which unfortunately will have lasting effects, so we are continuing to provide counseling services in our schools for those who need it. Our city was turned upside down by this unimaginable event and we are slowly getting back on our feet, but we have a lot of healing yet to do.

What have you found to be the greatest challenge of your career as a school board member?

You can imagine that in my 28 years on my school board I’ve had quite a few difficult tests. But, three major challenges come to mind for me, the first being the fire.

Another one would be in 1996, concerning the filming of the movie Scream in my district. Check out the credits at the end of the movie and you’ll see, “No thanks whatsoever to the Santa Rosa City School District Governing Board.” What happened there was Miramax wanted to use one of our high schools to shoot a movie and the board being cautious and skeptical requested to see a copy of the script. While the producers described it as being a comedy spoof, the script showed it was something quite different, and so we denied them use of our facilities. That created a big controversy in Santa Rosa which went on for many weeks. Movie director Wes Craven was involved and had promised all kinds of things to entice us, but it just wasn’t a good fit for our community.

Then in 2010, during my CSBA presidency year, our state organization experienced a problem with the leadership of CSBA. We had to make a change in the executive director, but we worked through it. We came out of it a much stronger and better organization. There’s a real benefit for leadership training in successfully tackling these hard issues. There are always challenges in front of school board members, but collectively we can figure them out.

Do you have any final words of wisdom for board members going forward, especially new or aspiring board members?

For new school board members, my best advice is that they need to realize that they don’t have all the answers and they need to be comfortable in knowing that they never will. They really need to participate in the ongoing professional development that CSBA provides. In doing so, they will become a better spokesperson for their board and a better advocate for education. And, all of this benefits our kids. I hope that new board members realize that these trainings are a prerequisite to being a successful board member.

I have advice for old seasoned board members as well, and that is: Don’t give up! We need to really encourage the senior board members to continue on because we need their expertise, we need their guidance and we need their wisdom.